Iran’s revolution had a profound impact on the regional balance of forces in the Gulf. Until 1979, the two most powerful and ambitious states in the region, Iran and Iraq, were sufficiently constrained by each other, and by the presence of United States forces and Washington’s friendly relations with most of the Gulf states, that neither seriously attempted to overturn the status quo.

Yet neither Baghdad nor Tehran relinquished its claim to wider influence. The regime in Iraq, inspired by the pan-Arab aspirations of the ruling Baath Party, viewed the Gulf as a natural base for its claims to play a leading role in Arab affairs. On a number of occasions since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, Baghdad’s condemnations of “reactionary and pro-imperialist regimes” in the Gulf extended to active support for local opposition groups — especially Baathist organizations. Iraq eventually dropped its claims on Kuwait — which it had asserted dramatically at the moment of Kuwait’s independence in 1961 — but even now it continues to press for a long-term lease of two strategically located Kuwaiti islands, Bubiyan and Warba. And Iraq still has other unsettled border disputes with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

In Iran, the Shah’s disregard for his Arab fellow rulers was not diminished by their acquiescence to his regional role, in accordance with Washington’s wishes. In 1971, in exchange for Iran’s relinquishing its claims to Bahrain, the US and Britain looked the other way when Iran took over three small islands in the Gulf — the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa. The Gulf states’ response remained strictly rhetorical. The Shah also intervened militarily in Oman against the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, helping to preserve the throne of Sultan Qaboos. The Shah’s oil policies, while at times disturbing, certainly helped to enhance the leverage as well as the revenues of the other Gulf oil-producing states. Iran represented a counterweight to Iraq’s pan-Arab aspirations, while itself coming under the constraining influence of the United States.

True Arabs, True Muslims

When Iran's revolution came, Washington’s inability to intervene and save this ally, and its ineptitude in the region as a whole, appeared to leave the Gulf states on their own to face the unfolding rivalry between Iraq and Iran, two relatively powerful neighbors whose hegemonic aspirations were expressed in supranational ideologies. To the one they were not “true Arabs”; to the other they were not “true Muslims.” Tehran’s post-revolutionary rhetoric strongly condemned the “un-Islamic ways” prevailing in the Gulf states and their tacit alliances with the West. Tehran’s new leaders were not content to take over the Shah’s preeminent position in the hierarchy of Gulf leaders: The ideology of the Islamic Republic required the establishment of other Islamic republics up and down the Arab side of the Gulf.

Though the inspirational appeal of the Iranian revolution has been frequently overstated, it played some role in the revival of oppositional activity throughout the Gulf. Local Shi‘i clergy helped broaden the popular base for opposition to the rulers of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where Shi‘i communities are an important part of the population. Tensions peaked in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in 1979-1980; discontent in these territories was eclipsed by the dramatic seizure of Mecca’s Grand Mosque in November 1979 by Saudi and other Muslim militants who hoped to spark a region-wide revolution.

Swift and often bloody measures by local internal security forces, largely staffed by European and other expatriates, were able to contain these threats, but they could not erase their significance or their potential. In addition to detention, deportation and other repressive measures, the rulers of the Gulf states promised broader political participation. Kuwait hastily arranged a return to its version of parliamentary politics, suspended four years earlier. Oman, Qatar and the UAE activated their respective consultative assemblies, or majalis shura. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, talk abounded on “the search for a suitable form for broadening popular participation in the political process,” but nothing was actually implemented. Bahrain’s parliament has remained dissolved since 1975. Saudi “reform” plans announced in the wake of King Faysal’s assassination in 1975 were revived in 1979, but to this date have led only to the construction of a new building in which to house the non-existent majlis shura.

Political Flirtations

On the face of it, the Gulf rulers must have drawn some measure of comfort during the 18 months between the overthrow of the Shah and the outbreak of the war, as both Iran and Iraq occupied themselves with hostile propaganda, sabotage and border incidents. If worse came to worse, the Gulf states’ ostensible neutrality might equip them to serve as mediators between these two aspirants to regional hegemony.

The wisdom of these calculations was shattered on September 22, 1980, when Iraq launched a major military offensive. Saddam Hussein’s conditions for a ceasefire included the return of the three Arab islands occupied by the Shah in 1971 and “non-interference in the affairs of other states.” Saddam’s political flirtations with the smaller Gulf states included closing down the information offices of the Gulf opposition groups that had operated out of Baghdad. Iran, for its part, intensified its denunciations of “the stooges of the Great Satan” and renewed calls for the peoples of the Gulf to rise up in defense of “true Islam.”

The government-controlled media in the Gulf reciprocated, reporting to the tiniest detail the initial successes of the Iraqi attack and repeating without qualification Iraqi claims of imminent final victory, while completely ignoring reports from the Iranian side. This purposefully induced euphoria was not in the least disturbed by voices in diverse underground publications of the left and Islamist opposition which, until they were silenced after several months, opposed the Iraqi offensive and cautiously Oman supported the Iranian position in the war. These included two weeklies, al-Tali‘a in Kuwait and al-Azmina al-‘Arabiyya in the UAE, and one UAE daily, al-Khalij.

Neither flirtations nor condemnations affected the publicly proclaimed neutrality of the Gulf states. They repeatedly denied reports of active support for Iraq’s war effort such as grants and loans, underwriting credit facilities, providing shelter for Iraqi warplanes and transit for Iraqi imports of weapons and other goods. After Iraq’s main oil export terminal, Mina al-Bakr, was destroyed in November 1980, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia “lent” Iraq some 300,000 barrels of oil per day to meet its export contracts. This substantial though officially non-existent aid nevertheless fell short of Baghdad’s demands for full and open support for its “struggle to defend the eastern gateway of the Arab homeland.” The Gulf states appeared content to see the two protagonists thoroughly engrossed in a struggle for survival but not sufficiently desperate to drag the other states into the war.

Enter the Gulf Cooperation Council

After three months of intensive deliberations at various official levels, the rulers of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE held their first summit in Abu Dhabi in May 1981. Their concerns were several. The Iran-Iraq war was stalemated but dangerously unpredictable. The Soviets had entrenched themselves militarily in Afghanistan, a few steps closer to the Gulf — at least on the map. Washington, after failing to prop up the Peacock Throne of the Shah, could not even manage to free its diplomats held hostage in Tehran. And domestic opposition forces took all too much inspiration from these same developments. These considerations led the six rulers to put aside their differences and mutual distrust and close ranks. Out of the summit came the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The founding session promised that the Gulf states would meet regional threats “jointly and independently of foreign interference.” The summit laid down the following strategic guidelines:

  • The security of the Gulf is the responsibility of its peoples;
  • Member states shall strive to keep the region free from international tensions and conflicts;
  • Member states reject all military interference in the region by foreign powers, and especially by the superpowers;
  • Member states reject foreign military bases; and
  • Member states shall not join any international bloc.

In view of the fact that all six states remain dependent on foreign military personnel, weapons systems, training and advice, the GCC principles should be regarded at best as a non-binding declaration of intent. Indeed, Bahrain and Oman both have US bases on their territory, while Saudi Arabia has multiple military facilities that have been “overbuilt” to accommodate US military intervention in the region. Six subsequent summits and scores of meetings of military experts, chiefs of staff and ministers of defense have proven just how illusory those principles are.

The founding summit discussed three somewhat conflicting proposals for enhancing the rulers’ mutual security. Saudi Arabia argued for broad cooperation among internal security forces, coordinated military procurement policies and a collective defense agreement under which the armed forces of one member state could help defend “the sovereignty of another member state and preserve law and internal order.” The other states declined to issue such an open invitation for Saudi interference. Oman proposed that the Gulf states “concentrate on building a joint naval defense force to secure the Straits of Hormuz.” The Kuwaitis sought to avoid military and security arrangements altogether, and called for “cooperation in economic, cultural and oil policies.” The final communiqué specified six fields of cooperation: fiscal and economic; commerce, customs and communications; education and culture; information and tourism; and administrative and legal affairs. Security and military arrangements were subsumed under the enigmatic phrase “and other fields.”

Baghdad and Tehran, both excluded from GCC membership and related consultations, promptly expressed misgivings at “the establishment of a military and security alliance” among their smaller neighbors. Other Arab countries expressed regrets at the establishment of this “exclusive club for the rich,” but internal wrangling did as much as outside criticism to limit the scope of cooperation among the GCC states. The rather restrained conclusions of the first summit stemmed mainly from the long history of mutual distrust, chronic border disputes and a fear shared by the five smaller states that Saudi Arabia would overwhelm them in any hastily arranged military and security pact. These circumstances persisted through the GCC’s first year, including a second summit, convened in Riyadh in November 1981.

The situation was altered in the early summer of 1982. Iran had pushed Iraqi forces out of its territory and initiated its own offensives into Iraq. The GCC’s third summit, in Bahrain in November 1982, began a second phase. Here the rulers spoke of “the dangerous developments following Iran’s crossing of international borders” and “the dire consequences of these developments on the safety and security of the Arab homeland.” For the first time, the GCC openly declared its support of Iraq and its desire now to end the war “by peaceful means.” This open support for Saddam Hussein probably served to boost Baghdad’s morale, but it had no practical or military consequences. The GCC summits of 1983 and 1984 repeated these declarations of support for Iraq, but they still fell short of Iraq’s demand that the GCC take an active military role in the conflict. In addition, falling oil revenues and related austerity measures actually diminished the financial sustenance the GCC states were able to provide to Baghdad.

The sixth summit, in Muscat in November 1985, marked a third phase. Sultan Qaboos captured the new mood among his guests when he called on “the leaders of both [belligerent] states to show flexibility that could pave the way for good offices to end the war.” This summit avoided any repetition of support for Iraq and revived the GCC delegation charged with mediating between the two warring states.

There are numerous, but unconfirmed, reports which indicate that the Gulf rulers had secret contacts at this time with right-wing Iraqi exiles and with the ruling Iranian clergy to explore possible compromises on an acceptable replacement for Saddam Hussein. But the Gulf rulers’ often contradictory attempts to keep their states as far as possible from the heat of the war ended up offending both belligerents. In the eyes of Iran’s rulers, they were rendering material and political assistance to the enemy. On the other side, Baghdad’s demands increasingly exceeded their means. The GCC’s predicament intensified with every “hot” phase of the tanker war, in which vessels owned by and bound for GCC countries were damaged by one or another of the combatants. Danger came even closer in the winter of 1986, when Iran captured the Faw peninsula, just a few miles from Kuwait’s borders and its oil exporting facilities at Khawr ‘Abdallah.



The GCC’s declared strategy of self-reliance, first promulgated at the 1982 summit and reaffirmed at later ones, eventually called for “the formation of a Joint Rapid Deployment Force; a Joint Military Command; and coordinated arms procurement policies.” In seeking to implement this strategy, though, GCC military planners face a number of exacting problems. Geographically, they are dealing with a vast region burdened with countless military soft points. Some borders remain undefined. Of the nearly 14 million inhabitants of the GCC states, about two fifths are foreign migrant workers. Sectarian and tribal divisions also limit the population base available for military recruitment.

The six armed forces have nearly 200,000 men under arms. But with the exception of some Omani units, these forces lack combat experience. This was demonstrated when Saudi army and national guard units could not quickly dislodge the militants occupying the Grand Mosque in 1979. Even British-led Omani forces were no match for the poorly armed and trained insurgents of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman; only direct intervention by Iranian and Jordanian forces quashed that struggle.

Each of the six armed forces has its own problems maintaining discipline, cohesion and loyalty. This is partly a consequence of the diverse nationalities represented in their ranks, and the varied linguistic and ethnic backgrounds of foreign recruits. Molding the armed forces of the GCC into a credible deterrent force would entail complete restructuring and retraining. Aside from the time and resources such an enterprise would demand, modernization would drastically change the roles assigned to these forces as symbols of statehood. They would no longer serve simply as auxiliary instruments for maintaining internal security, and this shift would affect the balance of power among the various factions of the ruling families.

The diversity of the GCC states’ military inventories often shades into incompatibility. Oil revenues in the 1970s facilitated enormous purchases of military goods from different Western arms manufacturers with no apparent rational calculation of need and capacity to absorb new weapons systems. Kuwait recently added Soviet weaponry to its inventory, reflecting the GCC’s commitment to diversification of military suppliers as a means of enhancing political independence. Problems of integration and standardization of equipment and doctrine will thus persist for some time to come. GCC Secretary-General ‘Abdallah Bishara, in April 1983, brushed aside suggestions that the organization was forming a joint military force. “We are not going that far,” he told the Saudi daily al-Riyad. “Our ambitions are enormous but our capabilities are not. We know our resources, hence we have to be realistic.”

In spite of Bishara’s open-eyed assessment, the rulers of the GCC states went ahead with plans for a joint force. The first joint maneuvers, codenamed Peninsula Shield I, were held in the UAE desert during the second week of October 1983. Participating soldiers were carefully limited to those holding citizenship in the GCC states. Sultan Qaboos, the only Gulf ruler with formal military training and battlefield experience, later commented on these maneuvers:

Let us be frank. We do not possess the military capability needed to confront the other side…. We do not have the army that can defend the security of the Gulf. There are those who think that having sophisticated weaponry is important to this end. This is not sufficient without proper knowledge of how to use them. Those who know are the ones who manufactured [these weapons]. It is good that we have sophisticated arms, but we have to learn to use them.

GCC military planners soon discovered that the Gulf war had come much closer. In mid-May 1984, one Saudi and two Kuwaiti tankers were attacked, presumably by Iran. An emergency ministerial meeting of the GCC convened and referred the matter to the UN Security Council, which duly issued a resolution, number 552, condemning the attacks. Additionally, they hastily arranged bilateral military exercises: Kuwait and the UAE; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; the UAE and Oman; Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The declared aims of these exercises were “to coordinate tactical capabilities” and “to send a message to whom it may concern.” In September 1984, the GCC held its second joint maneuvers, Peninsula Shield II, for more than two weeks in the King Khalid Military Township near the Saudi-Yemeni borders. Undeterred by the practical obstacles to their self-reliance strategy, GCC military sources boasted a year later, in September 1985, that “the Joint Rapid Deployment Force was already assembled and being trained as a united force,” and that it had “obtained the necessary clearances for swift deployment into member states.”

These reports must have surprised other GCC officials. In his opening speech to the fourth meeting of the GCC defense ministers in late October 1985, Secretary-General Bishara was still urging them “to approve the defensive strategy formulated by the chiefs of staff” which would “provide a minimum defensive deterrence for a specific period.” Moreover, Oman refused to host the Peninsula Shield II maneuvers on the grounds that it “was busy preparing for the GCC summit.” Subsequently, economic reasons were cited to explain the changed attitude toward the self-reliance strategy. Typical were the comments of Secretary-General Bishara. The GCC’s main concerns, he said, are “to keep the region at a distance from the Iran-Iraq war…, to preserve the status quo and to maintain the prevailing balance of forces.” The seventh GCC summit, in Abu Dhabi in November 1986, deemphasized self-reliance and dropped joint military arrangements. The final communiqué carried more than the customary conciliatory appeals to Iran and emphasized “the necessity of GCC cooperation in the field of economy and internal security.”

Border Disputes

The war between Iraq and Iran is not the only military threat facing the GCC members. Conflicts over borders have the potential of causing military confrontations among the GCC states themselves. These include Oman’s borders with the UAE and with Saudi Arabia; Saudi borders with the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait; Qatari borders with Bahrain and the UAE; and the borders of the seven emirates making up the UAE. On top of this, the various GCC members have unresolved border problems with Iraq, Iran and North and South Yemen.

Officially the regimes minimize the potential of these disputes to erupt into open warfare, but they remain an obstacle to GCC efforts to forge a credible united front. The most serious disputes concern the borders between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and between Bahrain and Qatar. In 1977, Saudi Arabia annexed two islands, Umm al-Maradam and Kura, lying off the coast of the so- called Neutral Zone that Saudi Arabia shares with Kuwait. Resentment of that “aggression” continues to be an emotional issue in Kuwait, partly for fear that this precedent might encourage Iraq to act on its similar claims on the Kuwaiti islands of Bubiyan and Warba.

The presence of oil and gas fields heightens the importance of the disputed territories. The aftermath of an “armed” confrontation between Qatar and Bahrain over a group of islands lying between them is illuminating. The two mini-states expelled each other’s citizens, cut all communications links with each other, including flights by jointly-owned Gulf Air, and blasted each other in their respective newspapers, radio and television. Ironically, one of the charges hurled between them was abuse of human rights. Both states put their military on maximum alert and “discovered” espionage networks aiding the enemy. On April 26, 1986, four Qatari air force helicopters landed on the uninhabited island of Fasht al-Dabal and arrested all 29 foreign workers surveying the area for a Dutch construction company contracted by Bahrain to build a coast guard base. The bizarre incident underlines the explosive nature of these disputes and the temptation to settle them by force. Subsequent mediation efforts by the GCC, led by Saudi King Fahd, defused the situation but did not settle the dispute. Bahrain’s recent acquisition of new weapons systems may portend another, more serious round of hostilities.

Factional Squabbles

Factional squabbles within each of the ruling families present threats of varying intensity to the GCC regimes. Palace coups had been dismissed as phenomena of the past — until June 17, 1987, when ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Qasimi, commander of Sharja’s armed forces, led a coup against his brother, the ruler, Sheikh Sultan al-Qasimi. The Sharja coup shattered the notion that prosperity and institutionalized authority provided sufficient incentives to keep ambitious sheikhs and princes from endangering the status quo.

This coup attempt might well have split the UAE, since the two most prominent emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, viewed it quite differently. Abu Dhabi withdrew its support for the rebel sheikh when Dubai, championing “legitimacy,” warned that a successful coup in Sharja could unleash similar moves in the rest of the seven emirates. In the end the ruler was reinstated, while the coup leader was appointed crown prince and given control of the emirate’s finances.

More worrisome to the GCC ruling families than family squabbles is the bundle of sectarian, tribal and class divisions that characterize Gulf societies. Social tensions have been generally quiet for the last decade or so, but the austerity measures adopted to cope with the fall in oil revenues may change this. The regimes have frozen wages, increased charges on utilities and reduced government subsidies. The local press has expressed concern that these measures, exacerbated by bankruptcies and layoffs of foreign workers, might undermine social harmony.

Austerity has also hit the business communities. They can no longer count on large government contracts, or on rising prosperity. Various chambers of commerce have been uncharacteristically critical of government economic policies. This may well lead the states to sell off some state-owned enterprises and to finally set up majalis shura.

Shi‘i-Sunni tensions bear watching as well. Traditionally the social underdogs in these states, Shi‘a found inspiration in the rise to power of their co-religionists in Iran. Signs of growing Shi‘i militancy include underground networks, demonstrations, petitions, solidarity campaigns, study circles and acts of sabotage against government facilities. Harsh repressive measures (including detention without trial and physical torture) have not impeded their growth or militancy.

Following the December 1981 arrest in Bahrain of some 100 Shi‘i activists from various GCC states charged with plotting a coup, Saudi Arabia pressed its GCC partners to initiate bilateral security agreements. The GCC ministers of interior drafted a Comprehensive Security Agreement during their meeting in Riyadh in February 1982. The agreement sharply limited press freedoms, and in particular the right of citizens of one GCC state to criticize another member state. The dissolution of the Kuwaiti parliament in July 1986 removed the last obstacle to ratification of the agreement, which took place at the GCC summit four months later.

In Kuwait, hostility between Sunni and Shi‘i communities has escalated in the wake of a series of bombings of political and economic targets carried out by militant Shi‘a over the last four years. In early June 1986, the state security court sentenced six militants to death and eight others to long prison sentences. Supporters of the accused held unprecedented demonstrations outside the court during the trial, underlining the growing sense of Shi‘i solidarity and shattering the myth that attacks on the ruling family come primarily from expatriates or outside agitators. In the wake of these demonstrations, Kuwait’s prime minister called on Sunnis to avoid blaming local Shi‘a for the unrest, but discoveries of arms caches in poorer quarters of the capital and persistent reports of clandestine training by Shi‘i youth groups add credence to fears that some Kuwaiti Shi‘a represent a fifth column sympathetic to the Islamic Republic.

At the same time, local authorities are cracking down on the expatriate Palestinian communities in the Gulf. Visas and work permits are increasingly hard to come by, as shrinking employment opportunities have stimulated government efforts to “nationalize” the labor force in Kuwait and the other smaller Gulf states. This has led to rising emigration of Palestinians from the area, and to subtle shifts in statements of official support for the Palestinian cause in the local press. Community leaders worry that growing encouragement for moderate Islamist organizations on the part of local regimes will generate rivalry between these groups and established Palestinian institutions, which are generally more secular in orientation.

At the Crossroads

For all its timidity in setting up programs of military and security cooperation, the GCC has accomplished little more in other areas. Despite early agreement and a number of planning sessions on aspects of economic cooperation, regulations and red tape have limited achievements here. Foreign policy is another arena characterized by divergent positions towards the superpowers and regional powers like Egypt and Iran. And as an arrangement between rulers, the GCC has failed to generate corresponding enthusiasm at popular levels. Even cultural exchanges have not received much official encouragement.

The GCC’s military arrangements, furthermore, were based on a number of serious miscalculations. The outcome of the Gulf war will probably see Iran as the hegemonic power in the Gulf. The recent intensification of attacks against shipping in the Gulf has put to rest the GCC’s pose of opposition to foreign military intervention. In 1980, the Gulf states publicly denounced US plans to build up its naval presence in the Gulf; in 1987, they expressed disappointment with Western leaders who did not support Washington’s planned buildup there.

But the Gulf rulers themselves are not of one mind on these matters. Kuwait, once the most adamant in avoiding too close an alignment with either superpower, has now invited them both to protect its tankers. Oman and some of the emirates, by contrast, have been receptive to Iranian diplomatic and economic overtures. Visiting Tehran in May, the Omani foreign minister expressed satisfaction with the trend toward “strengthening and expanding bilateral relations” and voiced the hope that “ties among all the countries of the region would be seen in a new light.” They appear to be gambling that accommodation with the Islamic Republic might prove a more successful means of preserving regional security than benign neglect or mutual defense pacts. The efforts of the Gulf rulers to establish an integrated, supranational unit have clearly been outpaced by events involving their larger, more powerful neighbors.

How to cite this article:

'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf "The Elusive Quest for Gulf Security," Middle East Report 148 (September/October 1987).

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